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Local priests optimistic that Catholics still returning home

Six months after the Rockford Diocese launched TV commercials inviting fallen-away Catholics to return to the church, the Rev. Tim Seigel is still getting calls from people who want to come back, a ripple effect that he believes started with the television advertising.

The commercials, which ran in December and January, were followed by programs led by laypeople and priests at each parish, inviting people interested in regaining their Catholic faith to meet once a week throughout the Lenten season.

Whatever evidence is considered – like an increase in Mass attendance throughout the diocese or anecdotal evidence, like the phone calls Seigel is still receiving – the diocese and local priests know that change is happening.

“There is something happening here and it’s a very exciting time,” said Seigel, pastor of St. Catherine of Genoa Church in Genoa.

The Rockford Diocese, which includes DeKalb County, evaluated the effectiveness of Catholics Come Home in three ways, said Michael Cieslak, the director of research and planning for the diocese.

First, a survey of parish leadership – to laypeople employed by parishes as well as priests – was conducted in late January, after the commercials had ended.

That survey’s purpose was to gauge first impressions, Cieslak said. Overall, 57 percent of respondents said they believe their parish will be energized as a result of Catholics Come Home, 77 percent felt that Catholic identity among currently attending Catholics would be strengthened and 60 percent of pastors had already seen an increase in Mass attendance.

The next step was to physically count people at Mass. This was done over the last two weekends of February at each of the 105 parishes in the diocese.

From October 2009 to February 2010, Mass attendance grew 10.5 percent overall.

In DeKalb County, attendance went up 15.4 percent – the highest of all 11 counties in the diocese, Cieslak said.

Typically, Mass counts are conducted annually in October. So the real test will come this October, when the year-over-year comparison can be made.

“Even if we maintain half of that (increase) – October 2010 versus October 2009 – that would be huge because that would be reversing a six- or seven-year trend,” Cieslak said.

Any increase in Mass attendance would be a welcomed trend for the diocese, which has witnessed a slow decline, about 1 percent or 2 percent a year, over the last several years, he said.

The third evaluation was another survey, this time in the spring, a few months after the commercials had soaked in. The majority of respondents – 69 percent – agreed that the commercials led to a greater appreciation of the Catholic faith, Cieslak said.

This is perhaps part of the ripple effect Seigel described, and what priests across the diocese and the country who have introduced the Catholics Come Home campaign are seeing in both practicing and non-practicing Catholics alike: a renewed connection to one’s faith.

“I think people are recognizing a need for themselves and are saying, I know something’s missing in my life and I need to get back to it,” Seigel said.

The Rev. Ken Anderson, pastor of St. Mary Parish in DeKalb, said he and his colleagues at other parishes noticed a surge in the sacrament of reconciliation when the commercials were in full force. Whether this was a direct effect from the initiative or not is unknown, he said, but it was an encouraging pattern, nonetheless.

Also, the ripples may be hard to see at times. Though nine people attended the weekly sessions during Lent at St. Mary, that is hardly a firm number.

“The one thing, too, that we realized was that people probably came back without coming to these classes; we’re not aware of them,” Anderson said. “We might look out and see there’s some new faces. I’m not sure if they’re Catholics coming from the ‘burbs and living in DeKalb now or people who have lived in DeKalb their whole lives. There might be people that we have touched and they may come back at some point in time.”

Months after the TV commercials and the Lenten programs have ended, the diocese-driven work has mostly ended, and now it’s up to individual parishes. Cieslak is on the planning team, and is optimistic that the initiative will continue in some form at the local level.

“Even if the formal program has ended, the infrastructure is still in place and we expect to see good results from that,” he said.

At St. Mary Parish, for instance, Anderson described two programs that will incorporate the Catholics Come Home message. One will be a small group that looks at teachings of the church to incorporate into daily life, and the Rite of Christian Initiation for adults will concentrate on evangelism to encourage new members.

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